A/N: Thanks to everyone, and even to the guest reviewer!
Chapter 8: To Become Parisian Once More
Although Fantine had certainly not expected to find the Thenardiers living in luxury, the state of their cart was nothing short of appalling. 'Like a hovel set on wheels!' she thought even as she tried to make herself comfortable on a wobbly seat while trying to rub away the ache in her twisted ankle. It seemed as if the family had thrown whatever they could into bundles and baskets and then shoved the entire mess into the cart. It seemed as if the youngest child, a scrawny boy of about three years, had not been spared this treatment, for he had to make do with a worn out basket in a corner for a bed and two sticks for his playthings.
"Oh you poor little boy," Fantine crooned as she picked him up to wipe his face. She sighed when she saw that he was sucking his grimy thumb. "What is his name?" she asked his mother, who was darning one of her blouses.
Mme. Thenardier grunted as she looked up from her work. "I can't decide on one."
"How do you call him then?" Fantine asked curiously.
Mme. Thenardier shrugged. "Boy or brat, it doesn't matter. He doesn't heed me or stop crying." She looked out to where her husband was still talking to Jean Valjean while the three little girls were now playing with some old dolls in a makeshift bower. "So you go by Mademoiselle Fabre. What about your child's father?"
"Gone. His family wouldn't let me keep the name anyway in his absence," Fantine replied.
"That is odd," Mme. Thenardier said. "You aren't in mourning?"
"It was a long time ago," Fantine said. 'If Felix had actually passed on, God forbid, I would not have to wear black or anything for him anymore by this time,' she realized. For a moment she wondered what Felix would be up to this winter. Certainly he was doing well in Toulouse, where it was warmer and he had the company of those who accepted him and would care for him. Nevertheless this was only a guess, for it was highly possible that the years could have been equally unkind to him.
Before Fantine could descend too far into this rather sordid reverie she saw the child in her lap begin to squirm. "Maman! Maman!" the boy shouted as he reached for Mme. Thenardier.
"Quiet!" Mme. Thenardier snapped, brandishing the soup ladle at the boy. The child started at the sound before cringing and then hiding his face in Fantine's dress.
"Maybe I ought to let him play with the others," Fantine suggested. Before she could inch over to let the boy out of the cart, suddenly the child cried out and pointed to where M. Thenardier had just made his appearance at the rear of the cart.
M. Thenardier rolled his eyes at the boy before looking to his wife. "Can't you keep your brat clean? Someone might think that we are harbouring an urchin!"
"If he wants to look like one of those gavroches, that isn't my fault," Mme. Thenardier muttered.
The former innkeeper spat on the ground. "Well get the girls inside." He looked at Fantine with a smile that was intended to be kindly but succeeded only in being chilling. "Have you got friends or anyone to stay with in Paris?"
Fantine's mouth went dry as she tried to rack her brains for any address she could name. "At the Estrapade, near the Pantheon," she stammered out. 'Why did I mention Dahlia's address?' she wondered incredulously.
The Thenardiers exchanged quizzical looks before M. Thenardier had to step aside to let his daughters clamber into the cart. M. Thenardier looked to Jean Valjean, who had just swung Cosette onto his shoulders. "I'll need twenty-five francs for you to travel with us."
Jean Valjean started at this. "For what expenses?"
"I'm not feeding my children out of the woods for the duration of our journey! What kind of father would I be if I didn't allow them to get decent food at an inn from time to time?" Thenardier said, sounding affronted at the question.
'Do we have twenty-five francs?' Fantine wondered. She hesitated to search through her carpetbag, which Jean Valjean had brought over a few minutes ago. Much to her surprise she saw her companion reach into his coat pocket and count out five coins which he thrust into Thenardier's hands. The man pocketed the coins immediately before going to hitch the horse again to the wagon.
Fantine shifted to let Cosette inch in next to her. "You didn't have to," she said to Jean Vajean.
"A small sacrifice," Jean Valjean muttered gruffly, gesturing first to her swollen ankle and then the gathering clouds overhead.
Fantine sighed deeply even as she could smell water in the air. She kept an arm around Cosette so she would not be jostled as the wagon lurched its way back to the northward road. A few minutes later cold rain slashed through the sky, forcing Mme. Thenardier to close off the cart with rough cloths while the rest of the travellers huddled towards the middle.
At length Eponine flopped on the floor and sighed dramatically. "Are we in Paris yet?"
"In a little while, treasure," said. "How are we going to get in?" she asked her husband.
M. Thenardier grunted as he looked back from where he was driving the cart. "Through one of those barrieres...the one at the north, the Barriere du Monceau."
Fantine tried not to frown at the mention of this place, knowing that its environs were quite far from the neighbourhood she had given as her supposed address. "From there, where will you go?"
M. Thenardier gave her a suspicious look. "We have our own business to tend to."
"Papa, are we going to have a nice, grand house like the ladies were talking about?" Eponine asked, jumping up to tap her father on his shoulder.
"You keep quiet and that big house will come soon enough," M. Thenardier chided, pulling on the horse's reins. "Stop asking so many questions!"
Eponine scooted away from her father and picked up her doll. Cosette picked up another doll from the cart's floor and went to sit next to the girl. "We can play that they are grand ladies first," she offered.
Eponine frowned. "Not ladies, but little princesses. You, Zelma and I can be big princesses."
"What about the baby?" Cosette asked, gesturing to Eponine's little brother, who was noisily banging his two sticks together.
Eponine glanced dismissively at her sibling. "Maybe he's the little dragon guarding the princesses."
"How can there be a dragon if there's no one to save the princesses?" Cosette asked.
"That's why there are big princesses, to stop the dragon!" Eponine said cheerily.
"Such noisy children!" Mme. Thenardier scolded even as she was unable to keep Azelma from wriggling off her lap to join in the game. "What am I going to do with them?"
In the meantime Cosette tugged on Jean Valjean's sleeve. "Can you be the keeper of the castle?"
"What should I do as the keeper?" Jean Valjean asked warmly.
"Make sure the dragon doesn't come for us too!" Cosette exclaimed.
"If he's the keeper, then what are Papa, Maman, and your Maman?" Azelma asked.
"I'll be the good fairy," Fantine said, hoping to intervene before the Thenardier girls could disturb their parents too much with their play. "That's what she's called in those stories, Cosette?"
Cosette nodded. "She's the fairy godmother." She found some ribbon that had lain abandoned in a basket and knotted it together. "Here's a crown, Maman!"
Fantine had to keep a dignified face as she let her daughter 'crown' her before they could properly begin their game. It hardly seemed to matter that there was very little space to move around and that most of the time the little girls and the tiny boy just wound up climbing all over her or Jean Valjean. In fact all of them were surprised when at last M. Thenardier declared that he had enough of travelling for an hour, and decreed that they all should have lunch at a small roadside inn.
Jean Valjean seemed to take this news with some trepidation, for he hesitated to follow them into the inn until Cosette pulled him into the doorway. "Will you be safe travelling with the Thenardiers?" he asked Fantine in an undertone as they took seats a little away from the Thenardier family.
Fantine shook her head, knowing already what he had in mind. "They frighten me," she confessed. "Not the children of course, but the innkeeper man and his wife. I've met them before, on my way to Paris so long ago."
Jean Valjean ran a hand through his white hair. "Once you are in Paris, you and Cosette can find any address you wish. You need not stay with them."
'Something tells me that I will not be able to get away so easily,' Fantine wanted to say but she did not dare voice this out here in the taproom. "Maybe there is some other way to get into Paris that does not involve those barrieres," she said. Surely she would remember if there was another way in. "The river?"
"It will be a long detour from the Barriere du Monceau to reach the quays near the Route de Versailles," Jean Valjean said tersely. "A boatman will be needed-"
"A boatman! What sort of cruise will that be in this weather?" M. Thenardier chimed in as he sauntered up with two large tankards of beer.
"It's for business. Papa used to need it," Fantine said cheerily. She saw Jean Valjean's tense look relax momentarily at this evasion.
"It's a good way to catch one's death," M. Thenardier declared. "You never said you were in the business of boating," he said pointedly to Valjean.
"I used to sell melons. It is sometimes easier to transport them by water," Jean Valjean explained.
Fantine stared into her tankard of beer, afraid that if she met M. Thenardier's eyes that he would catch on to this deception. "We need to make arrangements as early as now."
"Yes since you good folk already have lodging," M. Thenardier said sourly before draining one of the tankards he'd brought.
After a hurried and mostly silent lunch this group continued on their way to Paris. It was mid-afternoon by the time they arrived at the Barriere du Monceau. The sentry there eyed their cart sceptically. "Where did you come from?" he asked M. Thenardier.
"Livry," the innkeeper said. "Our friends here came from-"
"Chelles," Fantine chimed in, taking care to keep Jean Valjean out of sight. 'Please don't let them bring out a piece of paper,' she begged silently as she watched the sentry pacing in front of the cart. She could feel both Cosette as well as the little Thenardier boy pressed against her, as if trying to hide as well. It was only with some difficulty that she managed to place her arms around both trembling children in an attempt to reassure them. She also saw that Azelma was hiding behind her mother, but Eponine tried to peer out of the cart before Mme. Thenardier snapped at her to stay inside.
M. Thenardier eyed the guards warily as they began to whisper among themselves. "Is everything in order?" he asked.
"Do any of you have passports?" one of the guards asked.
The head sentry turned to cuff him. "No one needs a passport when coming from Livry or Chelles." He waved the cart forward. "Welcome to Paris."
Fantine had to refrain from crossing herself as the cart lumbered down the boulevard towards the Rue Rumfort. Was it possible that no one was searching for her and Jean Valjean, or had Inspector Javert given up the chase? Suddenly she felt Mme. Thenardier's large hand close around her own thin wrist. "You aren't from Chelles," the older woman growled.
Fantine looked Mme. Thenardier in the face. "They don't have to know-"
"So Mademoiselle Fabre, which way to the Estrapade?" M. Thenardier called.
It took Fantine a moment to remember that the former innkeeper was addressing her "Straight on down till the Place du Madeleine, then we'll take a right till we're at the Place de Louis XVI," she said. The sight of the increasingly familiar streets was now more disconcerting than comforting, for it had been so long till she'd seen such narrow lanes filled with so many people. 'I'll get used to it again by and by,' she told herself over and over as the wagon drove down the Rue Jacob, then south towards the Odeon, the Place Saint-Michel, and then at last to the crowded classical vista that was the Place du Pantheon.
"What house are we looking for?" Jean Valjean asked.
"A two-floor brown house on the Estrapade," Fantine replied. "The roof has old gray shingles."
"Maman, look!" Cosette shouted, pointing to a carriage rattling by. "Where are they going?"
"Probably to their own home," Fantine said, catching a glimpse of a sharp looking woman of advanced years and a young boy seated in the carriage. She looked about in vain for the residence in question, but found herself staring at a row of houses all of roughly the same height. "They must have painted the place!" she exclaimed as she got out of the wagon.
"What, you mean to knock on every door?" M. Thenardier called to her.
Fantine shook her head as she looked about, trying to remember just how far her friend's home had been from the street corner. 'It might be six or seven, on the right,' she decided as she counted out the houses, and then went to knock on the sixth door.
This door opened to reveal a tired looking woman who could easily have been about the age of fifty. "Monsieur is not receiving any visitors today," she said as she rubbed her temples. On closer inspection it seemed as if the left side of her face was taut and pink, as if she had been burned a year or so ago.
"Madame, I'm not looking for a Monsieur. I'm looking for a lady named Dahlia," Fantine said. "She used to live here."
The woman blinked blearily at this name and looked Fantine over from head to toe. "La Blonde?"
At the sound of this old nickname, Fantine nearly started. "How did you know my name?"
The woman snorted and looked as if she was about to wipe away a tear. "I didn't think you'd remember me. Dahlia has been gone a year, but I stayed on. As always."
Fantine's jaw dropped as she realized who was facing her. "Zephine? What has happened to you?"